President Obama said yesterday that efforts to craft health-care legislation before August would "make or break" his plan to get a law passed by the end of the year.
"This is the time where we've got to get this done," Obama said before meeting at the White House with Democratic senators. "This is a necessity."
Obama said that revamping the U.S. health-care system was crucial for the nation's economy. Earlier, his top economic advisers said in a report that the number of uninsured American would almost double in three decades and U.S. economic growth would suffer unless Congress acted.
The administration is pushing Congress to meet Obama's deadline of finishing work on drafting a measure before Congress leaves for its August recess. That will give lawmakers time for final negotiations and passage after they return to Washington in September.
Democrats, who control both the House and Senate, are considering proposals that would require employers to cover all full-time workers or pay a penalty to the government; create a "health exchange" to allow consumers to buy insurance at lower, group rates; set up a new government-run plan to cover some of the uninsured; and levy new taxes to pay for universal coverage.
Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said lawmakers would meet Obama's deadline. "We will pass a comprehensive, meaningful health-care reform bill this year," he said.
Baucus also said his committee would consider taxing portions of employer-provided insurance benefits for workers - a step that collides with Obama administration plans. The president adamantly opposed health-benefit taxes during the presidential campaign, arguing they would undermine job-based coverage.
Baucus got a key ally on that point in Republican Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire. Gregg, the senior Republican on the health and edication panel, offered a measure that would pay for the overhaul by capping the tax exclusion for employer-provided benefits. His legislation would include in workers' taxable income any contributions employees and employers made for health-care coverage that, taken together, exceed $11,500 a year for family coverage or $5,000 a year for individual coverage.
But White House budget director Peter Orszag said the administration had not altered its stance on taxing benefits. "It was not in the president's plan," he said. "It was not in the budget."
Obama has made some suggestions of his own for paying for a health-care overhaul, including cuts to Medicare and limiting tax deductions wealthy people can take, but they have run into opposition from Congress. And, they add up to only about $630 billion over 10 years.
Some experts think limiting the tax exclusion for health benefits is the only way to get the necessary money to pay for a sweeping overhaul. But there is opposition from organized labor and from many Democrats.